Following in Sasha's paw prints

After death of beloved canine helper, Vancouver man gets new service dog

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Harry Kiick had a certain expectation in mind when he began looking for a new service animal after the death of his beloved dog Sasha earlier this year.

He thought he might end up with another German shepherd. He envisioned an adult dog with a calm, confident, loving demeanor.

In other words, Kiick was looking for another Sasha. What he found was something very different.

Meet Carter, a rambunctious bull mastiff/Shar-Pei puppy with plenty of affection and loyalty — and a lot to learn.

"Our relationship is very different," said Kiick, who lives with an uncontrolled seizure disorder. "Sasha came in and she was in charge from Day One. We were partners from Day One. With this relationship, I have to take charge more."

Six-month-old Carter is still going through obedience training with regular sessions at a Petco store in east Vancouver. With trainer Paula Ercoli at his side, Kiick and Carter walked a loop around the store one day last week, working on various commands.

Carter's youth showed at times. He perked up excitedly whenever he spotted another dog. He pulled his leash, occasionally becoming distracted.

"Heel," Kiick said, easing Carter back to his side. "That's it. Just like that. Stay with Dad."

Kiick admits working with Carter has been frustrating at times. But he's seen significant improvement in a relatively short time, he said. The two were only paired May 6 — 12 years to the day after Kiick and Sasha became partners in 2002.

When Sasha died in February, she left big paw prints to fill. The dog made a profound impact on Kiick and many others in the community. A memorial service for Sasha packed dozens of people into the chapel at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, where Kiick has volunteered for years.

Nearly four months after she died, people still ask about Sasha "all the time," Kiick said.

Kiick is taking time away from the hospital while he and Carter work on their training and get to know each other. But Carter has already jumped into other aspects of Kiick's life, riding public transportation and attending meetings at C-Tran, where Kiick chairs the C-Tran Citizens Advisory Committee.

Carter is already showing a mellow personality that will make him a good service dog, Ercoli said. And he's shown an ability to recognize when something is wrong, according to Kiick. Eventually Kiick hopes Carter will fill the role that Sasha once did, protecting him when a seizure strikes or warning him even before it happens.

"It's hard to find. The dog kind of has to have it in him," Ercoli said. "Not every dog can be a service dog."

Carter came to Clark County via Hawaii, through the Maui Humane Society's Wings of Aloha program. The dog landed at Vancouver's Tender Care Animal Rescue, which ultimately matched him with Kiick, said founder and executive director Tina Stewart.

Carter's name came with him, but Kiick has since given him the nickname "Kolohe." That's "rascal" in Hawaiian.

The three breeds that dominate in Carter's heritage — bull mastiff, Shar-Pei and American Staffordshire terrier — are all intelligent dogs, Stewart said. And while working with a puppy can be difficult, "that's also the best time to start training them," she said. "They're like little kids. They just absorb everything."

Of course, a young dog also needs play time, she said — time to "be a puppy."

Sasha is still with Kiick in some ways, he said. Her ashes rest in a wooden urn inside Kiick's Vancouver home. And many, perhaps Kiick most of all, will find it difficult not to compare Carter with his predecessor.

"Harry, you're an icon, and Sasha was," Ercoli told Kiick this week. "Now Carter is going to pick up where Sasha left off."